Lavine Von’s grandfather taught her how to play chess when she was 5.
“It’s a popular game in the Philippines and so he taught me,” said the UCF computer engineering major. “Maybe that’s why it feels so good to play. We were close. He’s been gone for a while now.”
Von is one of about 100 students in the UCF Chess Club, a registered student organization on a mission. The members want to change the incorrect stereotypes about chess and make UCF’s team among the best in the nation.
Among the stereotypes: Chess is for math people, it’s just for guys, it’s boring and it’s not cool.
“That’s not true at all,” Von said. “Yeah, it can be a little intimidating because most of the members of the club are guys. But they really are a bunch of nice guys who like to have fun playing chess.”
The club numbered fewer than 20 members three years ago, but today has grown to 100. A core group within the club competes at the state and national level. And members are conducting outreach in Orlando to increase kids’ interest in chess.
“Chess is great for helping you develop critical thinking,” said Arnold Banner, a senior and outgoing club president. “You don’t have to be good at math – that’s a myth. But it (chess) does really help you with strategic thinking, which is good for everyone. And we’re really a lot of fun.”
Banner, a physics major, joined the club his freshman year of college. It was just a handful of students who were really involved then, he said, but they started to work together to spread the word.
They began hosting open-play sessions in more public places. This summer they play from noon to 4 p.m. at the John C. Hitt Library every Monday. They partnered with the Orlando Chess Academy to help build interest among children. In June the club hosted the academy’s Summer Junior Grand Prix in the Student Union. More than 100 children and adults participated. And the club has hosted two state tournaments at UCF.
In March, the team won the Florida Intercollegiate Spring Classic. UCF defeated teams from UF, FIU and many other schools from around the state. This was the second consecutive year UCF won the tournament. In December, the team took second place at a national competition in Ohio.
“We really want people to understand how valuable chess is and how much fun it can be,” Banner said. “There are a lot of benefits. Some universities even provide scholarships. We want to get there someday.”
At least 20 universities across the nation offer chess scholarships of varying degrees, including Texas A&M University-Kingsville and the University of Maryland at Baltimore. Maryland offers a full-ride scholarship including room, board, tuition and fees to master chess players.
Chess has an organized and complicated system for ranking players. Master players are the top of the pyramid. According to the U.S. Chess Federation, there were only two Florida players under the age of 21 ranked among the top 100 in the nation in May.
Given the time it takes to achieve competitive play level, the UCF team is taking time to invest in the future. Aside from working with the Academy in Orlando, they are piloting a partnership with the UCF Creative School for Children this summer. The center looks after infants to children in VPK. During the summer, they also have special camps for children ages six to 12.
Each Wednesday volunteers from the club spend an hour at the school showing the school-age children the basics.
“I think the chess club offers our children a great opportunity to build their creative problem-solving skills, strategic thinking and emotional intelligence,” said Amy Hesse, an expert in early childhood education and director of the school. “It takes skill to play the game and grace to win and lose. The skills the children learn will be with them for life.”